Since the horse’s reactions are many times faster than man’s, it is only through conditioning with consistent work, and through our ability to prepare both ourselves and the horse with timely aiding, that an element of predictability – the nucleus of a smooth performance – is established.
– Erik Herbermann, Dressage Formula (1980), p.7
Riding is a whole-body endeavour that involves every part of the rider. From controlling the tips of the fingers to the ends of the toes to everything in between, the body must be engaged in large and small movements over space in time. Aids must be precise, gentle and timed in relation to the horse’s movement. At any given moment, the rider must be engaged in some expression of movement in order to follow and guide the horse’s next steps.
Blueprinting, in the riding sense, refers to the muscle memory that is developed in both the horse are rider. The whole concept of riding could seem to be a very daunting task if it weren’t for the fact that muscles develop a movement ‘blueprint’ – once the neural pathways are engaged and connected, similar movements in similar circumstances become easier and easier until that particular movement occurs with little conscious thought. In effect, with sufficient practice, the rider can stop having to think about what the body is doing – you can essentially send the body on auto-pilot and think very little other than to get down to the business of ‘feeling’.
Blueprinting is an advantage in the sense that once you achieve ‘autopilot’ you can rely on your central nervous system (CNS) to do most of the ‘thinking’ in response to the many tiny movements required to respond to the horse’s movements.
The time it takes to send messages to brain and then instructions back to the body is too long to be able to keep up fluidly with the horse’s movements. Letting the CNS take over allows you to release your muscles and joints so they can easily flow with the horse. When you reach this state of non-thinking, you can begin to ride more in the right brain, and start riding with “feel”.
Then the magic happens – you no longer feel earthbound – your horse floats along with ease and the rules of gravity seem to no longer apply. Similarly, your horse resonates with bliss – with snorts, soft floppy ears, and effortless flow of the back. For all intents and purposes, it appears as if you and your horse are moving ‘as one’, thinking the same thought, dancing the dance.
The bad news about blueprinting is that the same learning process occurs with all body movements – even the ones you’d rather NOT duplicate! We usually consider these movements to be bad habits, things we know we are doing but we shouldn’t be doing!
The trouble with blueprinting in the negative sense is that the undesired movement becomes the ‘autopilot’ movement and so a vicious cycle begins to reproduce itself. And the biggest obstacle comes when you try to undo the physical movement and try to replace it with something more suitable. Now, you have to THINK about each aspect of the new movement – and tell each part of your body to make that movement one step at a time… which in general, ends up being too slow to correspond to the horse’s movement. The reeducation process takes much time and effort – in fact, much more effort to undo than if it was correctly learned in the first place.
Worse still, is when you are so permanently blueprinted that you don’t even recognize that you are producing a movement. It becomes unconscious, and your body effectively begins to lie to you – you think you’re doing one thing when in fact, you’re doing something else. In this case, it becomes difficult to even identify what is causing the situation, never mind try to find a solution.
What to do?
It seems that the situation is pretty daunting. What is a rider to do, especially because everything we do in the saddle influences the horse, either positively or negatively? The obvious answer is to get the right blueprinting in the first place. Your first riding experiences can set the stage either way – for the good or the bad.
The key, as always, is to find a good riding instructor. Also, find a good “school master” – a horse that is well trained, good minded and reliable, so he can teach you. Progress on to younger/less educated/more sensitive horses only after you have developed sufficient skills and then, keep getting guidance from a good instructor.
For those of us who are already not-perfectly-blueprinted: be ready to buckle up the seat belt and stay for the long haul. It will take time, patience and perseverance. Be forgiving of both yourself and your horse. Ride with a kind sense of humour.
Be satisfied with small steps in the right direction. Know when to quit, and when to try again. Stay determined, but stay gentle and calm. Enjoy the path, and don’t be too quickly discouraged. And above all else, listen to your horse, for if you can hear, you will get all the answers you need to succeed.